aaj1985This article originally appeared in the American Alpine Journal 1985.

Agonizing Decisions

By Charles S. Houston, M.D.

One of my friends and a companion were almost over an 18,000-foot pass in Nepal in the course of a long trek. It was mid-afternoon, the weather was threatening, and the snow lay deep along the track. My friend, remembering his bout with high altitude pulmonary edema several years before, was anxious to get over the pass and down. A man from another party came down, carrying a Tibetan mystic and dumped the nearly naked unconscious man at their feet saying, “We’ve done all we can; you and your Sherpas take care of this.” Then he turned and went back up.

They covered him with some of their clothes, gave him food and drink. Then my friend—fearful of his own health—went on slowly by himself, knowing that one of the parties coming up behind them had a horse, which he thought could carry the mystic down to shelter. Near the pass my friend was overtaken by his companion who greeted him angrily: “How do you feel about contributing to the death of a fellow man?” He went on to say that neither of the parties behind them had been willing to help. He and the Sherpas had reluctantly left the mystic, barely alive but covered with spare clothing, hoping he could get himself down—a forlorn hope at best.

My friend said, “Look, he got himself into this mess trying to cross a major pass in bad weather with nothing. We did what we could. We gave him clothes and food and drink. What more should we have done?”

“Typically selfish solution: give him things you can spare but don’t put yourself out.”

“But we’ll be in trouble ourselves if we don’t get over the pass and down to lower altitude.”

“So we abandon him to save ourselves—is that your idea? Suppose he had been a friend? Or one of our Sherpas?”

“But that would be very different—we owe help to our own party—not to everyone.” Over the days the debate continued: how far does one’s responsibility extend to others. Are we our brother’s keeper? Our cousin’s? Or should each of us take care of only ourselves?

It’s an ancient problem affecting many people throughout history and subject of endless debate. Mountaineering has a grand tradition of selflessness, but as more and more people attempt ever harder and more dangerous climbs, the decisions become more complicated. If one’s partner cannot move, and rescue is remote, should the other stay and die—or save himself? What risks is a rescuer morally obligated to take in trying to save a stranger? Or a friend?

Most of us never have to make that bottom-line choice, but many live with it: a fireman seldom hesitates to put his life on the line if one more person may be in the burning building. Police must take large and instant risks. But what about a volunteer or passerby? The bystander who dived into the ice-choked Potomac to save a plane crash victim—was he a fool or a hero? Such choices must be made instantly—they are dictated by our innermost selves. The mountaineer may have days or hours to decide—but sometimes he too has only minutes. Should we think, before the event, how we would react?

In 1957 Tony Streather led a small party to Haramosh, 24,270 feet high in northern Pakistan. On September 15 they reached their highest point—20,500 feet. On their left was a great cliff capped with a huge cornice recognized as terribly dangerous, while on the right was a steep convex slope, covered with new snow. Jillott and Emery carefully walked across this beneath the cornice break-line. Suddenly a slab avalanche carried them over a 300-foot ice cliff down a thousand feet to a run-out where they emerged, battered but alive. It was mid-afternoon of a perfect day.

Streather and Culbert watched as the two tried to climb out of the snowbowl, and saw them fall, shooting back down to the bottom. By then it was getting dark and they had lost their ice axes.

After seeing this, Streather and Culbert hurried back to camp for rope, food, drink and clothing, and five hours later were able to start down the hard ice where the snow had peeled off. Though Culbert lost a crampon, they reached Jillott and Emery at dawn, roped up and began to climb. After 300 feet, Culbert’s foot slipped, he fell backwards, pulling off the others. At the bottom again, they were not hurt, but their packs and Streather’s axe were lost.

Once more they started up, Streather leading with their only axe. After a few hundred feet, Jillott fell asleep while belaying, slipped and dragged the others off. They lost the last axe. It was then dark and they decided to bivouac—the second night out. All were frostbitten and hypothermic and they had had little to eat or drink for 24 hours.

Next morning they started again. Miraculously they found one of the lost ice axes with which Streather led for several hundred feet. He reached a platform and let down the rope for Emery who brought Jillott up. He then told Jillott and Emery to go on while he belayed Culbert; without his crampon, Culbert fell, pulling Streather off, down to the bottom. It was again dark—the third night. While Streather and Culbert huddled in a stupor at the bottom, Jillott and Emery, near the top, had little choice but to go on. They made it, became confused in the dark, and Jillott walked over a cliff while Emery fell into a crevasse, somehow managed to climb out and made it to the tent where he passed out, fully clothed.

At dawn on the fourth day Streather and Culbert started again unroped. They managed to get halfway up, but Culbert came off and fell to the bottom; he tried again and fell again; by then he was finished—unhurt but exhausted. Streather had lost one glove and was partly snow-blind, near exhaustion too, but felt he could join Jillott and Emery and return for Culbert with food and drink, ice axe, and crampons. Almost unconscious he reached the ridge and stumbled down to camp after dark, where he found Emery, whom he revived. They talked of going back for Culbert. Slowly Streather realized that Jillott was dead. Emery could barely stand on his frozen feet; both had frozen hands, and it was obvious to both, without consciously deciding, that going back for Culbert was impossible; they would be fortunate to save themselves. They had been going for more than 72 hours with little sleep or food and only snow and a bit of soup to drink. Both were badly frostbitten and semi-delirious.

Somehow they made it off the mountain. Emery eventually lost both hands and both feet, Streather some toes and a bit of finger. Streather had saved Emery and himself but lost Culbert by a decision whose alternative would have meant the death of all.

How can one decide whether to stay with a friend to certain death, or to leave him and survive? Streather had once before faced this decision in 1953 on K2. During the ten-day storm which immobilized us at 25,000 feet Art Gilkey developed blood clots in his legs and then his lungs; he could not walk, let alone climb down the difficult rock below. We did not have enough strength left to carry him. We discussed many strategies but we knew we would try to make it with him or die there together. On the tenth day the storm seemed less and somehow we dragged and lowered him down the easiest bit. Late that afternoon there was a fall; we were all hurt and had to leave Gilkey anchored to a belay while we scratched out a shelter. An avalanche swept him away—without him we barely got down ourselves.

On Haramosh, Streather faced that most difficult decision alone. When he climbed out, he was determined that he and the other two could return and save Culbert. If he had realized that would be impossible, would he have made the same choice? His wife and two small children were totally dependent on him; Culbert was single.

The proud tradition of climbing is that one does not abandon a companion even when staying risks one’s own life, but did Streather have any other choice? Do obligations to one’s closest family outweigh the desperate needs of others? Is climbing different than other activities where life is at risk?

There is one difference—real as well as symbolic—the rope which literally places each person’s life in the hands of another, binding the party together physically and spiritually. Unsoeld once said that the use of Jumars, which enable a person to climb safely up a fixed rope without being roped to anyone else, gave birth to a new climbing ethic of each man for himself. There’s no parallel to the rope in other life-threatening situations.

Some climbers have decided in advance that each is responsible only for himself. Masatsugi Konishi said before leaving for K2 in 1982, “If I should happen to be exhausted at 8,500 meters, you need not help me. It is my responsibility to have climbed to the high altitude. I should have descended at a lower point. No one can take care of others at all in the high place. . . .” On the summit attempt four climbers set out, each on his own; only three returned. In 1983 five Japanese from two separate expeditions reached the summit of Everest, each climbing alone. On the descent two Japanese died, separated and alone. The rest of the party did not know till next day that Sherpa Pasang Temba had fallen to his death as well.

Climbing is more extreme today, and climbers more expert. Climbing is also a business, for some their only income, and no longer simply a sport. The more ventured, the more gained. Is this perhaps one of the reasons that more extreme climbing is being done on deadly routes, against high odds of weather and terrain? Does this make it more reasonable to take care of Number One? Is this part of a general societal change? Are we more selfish, less caring today?

Before going to Skyang Kangri, two men agreed that should one be disabled, the other would save himself. That was in keeping with the time—1977. However, when the test came and one became seriously ill at a critical point in the climb, the well man stayed with him though they were not close friends and undoubtedly saved his life, at some risk to himself.

Rob Taylor took a leader fall high on the difficult ice of Kilimanjaro and suffered a compound fracture of his leg. Taylor was in great pain, and of course unable to use the leg, but Henry Barber got him down over very difficult technical ice, to a sheltered ledge. Barber then went for help, wandering completely lost, over difficult terrain before he reached rescuers who found Taylor and carried him to hospital where he almost lost the leg. Barber returned to business obligations at home; he considers the agonizing descent the best thing he ever did; Taylor feels Barber abandoned him. Bitter controversy flared throughout the climbing world.

After a bold bid for a very high summit a climber found his companion sick and unable to descend. With their only Sherpa, he went down to the next camp for help, but finding no one there or at any of the lower camps, the two were slowly drawn down the mountain, reaching Base Camp exhausted. Later four Sherpas climbed from Base to the high camp but Pasang Kikuli, Pasang Kitar, and Pintso died high on the mountain in their selfless attempt to rescue the sick man, following the great tradition that bound most parties.

Not all were so together. On Nanga Parbat, in 1934, after a series of unwise decisions, each of which should have been recognized as dangerous, a large and experienced party unravelled as a long storm dumped six feet of snow along their retreat route. Each man struggled to save himself, and ten died, mostly alone and separated. One Sherpa, Gay-Lay stayed and died with his sahib rather than go on to safety without him.

Most climbers today accept their obligation to others in the party and most are ready to take risks—even the most extreme—to save a companion. But what about strangers, perhaps novices who should never have been where they got into trouble? Are climbers obligated to try such rescues?

After climbing strongly for the two weeks it took from 16,000 to 21,000 feet a young man became unconscious during the night with classical high altitude cerebral edema. He failed to improve in 48 hours while help was sought from another party on an adjacent route; that party elected to continue their climb though the doctor sent advice. The unconscious man was painfully evacuated to 17,500 feet during the next three days, and a week later reached the hospital still hallucinating. He has some remaining disability five years later.

In 1980 two Americans and a Canadian were high on Chogolisa when an avalanche carried two of them down 2,700 feet. The third man reached them several hours later, found them too badly injured to move, and descended to a Japanese party’s camp where he was able to contact that party high on the mountain by radio. The Japanese immediately abandoned their summit bid, came down through storm and severe avalanche danger and evacuated the injured men who, miraculously, had survived for five days.

What are we to say about such actions? There have been many more, un-recorded or unspoken or papered over. For some the choice was immediate, almost reflex; others went step by step deeper into trouble until there was no way out. Some gave up long-sought summits, others considered the problems of another party not their concern. Some accepted the risk and asked that no help be given them.

Thousands of rescues occur every year all over the world, often in dangerous circumstances, and scores have been killed trying to save others they have never known. In the Alps such rescues are done by professional guides who have everything to lose and little to gain. Understandably they are sometimes reluctant. In more remote areas rescue organizations, trained to the work, may be available, but more often whoever is available will be called. Do we each have an obligation?

Although even experts have accidents and may need to be rescued by others, most rescues are to save the inexperienced. Many trained search and rescue organizations have been formed to meet the growing need. Some are volunteer, others are paid; all expect and are expected to take reasonable risks. For years some have urged mandatory insurance for climbers—to pay rescuers, or to provide for their families in case of death. Efforts have been made (and usually abandoned after a trial) to require climbers to prove they are adequately experienced, well equipped, and able to pay for a rescue if needed. Such controls have been criticized and rejected. But they beg the basic question: how great is the moral obligation of one person to another—even if that person is a fool?

From these brief pictures one sees that different people take different views of ethics when hard decisions cannot be avoided. Ethical choices are surely one of man’s higher mental activities and can be blunted by lack of oxygen. Sitting comfortably at sea level we must be careful not to fault a climber high on a remote peak for being self-serving where danger is his constant guest.

How far does one go to be one’s brother’s keeper? Does a person with a family owe more to them than to another? Should members of the climbing brotherhood be expected to rescue other climbers? Under what conditions? What impact does sacrifice have in the world of today and tomorrow? Will others honor and follow brave examples or shrug and turn away? Are such decisions a futile gesture, or are they heroic? Is there more to life than living? Is the unrisked life worth living?

Lofty principles and words are all very well, but action in the real world is different. In today’s high technology, should we program a computer to evaluate, for example, weather, snow conditions, level of exhaustion and extent of injury, and the relative net value of those whose lives are at stake—both rescuers and victims? One shudders at the thought.

These are not idle theoretical speculations: the issues wrack our whole society. If there are insufficient resources to salvage the most desperate of the under- developed nations, do we abandon them and save others who have a better chance?

Hard decisions have become more frequent in modem mountaineering. Fifty years ago climbing was a game where one might test limits but where safety was paramount. One avoided rock-bombed slopes, gullies and natural chutes and passing under a thousand tons of unstable seracs because objective dangers made a route unacceptable. A party of two was considered unsafe for travel on a snow-covered glacier, and marginal for a long hard climb. Rushing a very high peak and risking serious altitude illness was frowned upon. The good mountaineer did not deliberately put himself in situations where others might be asked to risk their lives in rescue. To leave a companion, to refuse help to another party, was unheard of. The reality and symbolism of the rope and the character of those who used it set a high standard of conduct.

What has changed climbing and climbers—if you believe them changed? Is it the pressure of competition, the quest for fame or fortune, or simply the human desire to reach a bit beyond one’s grasp, to test the limits a little further that has strained our proud tradition? Why are today’s climbers more often faced with terrible decisions—and what has led some to make choices which appall us? Has our society become cynical and selfish, and heedless of the obligations we owe to one another?

It seems to me that climbing is a game and should be played for the inner satisfaction it brings rather than for notoriety or gain. Whatever our motives they should be lofty and mountaineers should be guided by a high ethical code. They should be as careful for themselves as mindful of those who might be called to rescue them. When the hard decisions must be faced in this best of sports, should we agree that “Greater love hath no man than that he lay down his life for his brother”? But the question remains—who is this “brother?”

To download a pdf of the original article, click here: Agonizing Decisions, by Charles Houston, AAJ 1985